• June 15, 2021

To Save Lives, this Nonprofit Links Blood Donors to Recipients Using Telegram Bot, Facebook Messenger

To Save Lives, this Nonprofit Links Blood Donors to Recipients Using Telegram Bot, Facebook Messenger Photo credit: Jela's Development Initiatives

BY ANGELA ONOZARE UMORU

ABUJA: Flatline. Hear the silence as no heartbeat is detected. A mother gone. A father lost. A child dead.

This is what happens more times than medical doctors can count because someone bled out.

The need for a blood transfusion can arise at any time to stem severe blood loss in cases such as road traffic accidents, childbirth, surgery, treatment of sickle cell anaemia, or some types of cancer.

In Nigeria, the demand for blood donation is almost always high, mainly because postpartum haemorrhage (a condition where a woman bleeds heavily shortly after childbirth) is a leading cause of maternal mortality, coupled with high road traffic injury rates. In addition, Nigeria has the highest global burden of sickle cell disease (one of whose complications is bleeding), affecting 2-3% of the population.

Since blood for transfusion can only be received from humans - and an individual is medically expected to donate only one pint per time - to meet the 1.8 million units of national annual blood need, Nigeria requires 10 donations per 1000 population every year. Currently, only about 25,000 to 60,000 units of blood are collected annually in the country.

There is hesitancy among Nigerians to donate blood. Their reluctance is often fueled by factors like religious beliefs, superstitions, and poor living standards - leading to blood shortage at the National Blood Transfusion Service (NBTS), the agency catering for the country’s blood needs.

Usually, a patient’s relative is the ideal person to donate blood, said Adeleke Babatunde, a medical officer at Giwa Hospital in Kaduna State.

“A family member is actually preferred, but they can get friends,” Babatunde said, adding that blood can also be received from anybody willing to donate for free or at a fee.

Where no relative or friend is able or willing to donate, and a random stranger is not available or asking for a price the family of the patient cannot afford, the next option could be to buy from a blood bank like the NBTS where a pint of blood costs between N5000 and N6000 ($1.2 and $1.5) or more, Babatunde said.

But with the NBTS often experiencing blood shortage, it could sometimes be difficult to access blood from the service. And a patient could die during the waiting process - especially those who need more than one pint of blood.

J Blood Match offers a solution

It seems one nonprofit has found a solution.

Jela's Development Initiatives, a nonprofit that advocates for blood donation, provision of mental healthcare, and clean water to underserved communities in Nigeria, has developed an artificial intelligence-enabled bot programme built into Telegram and Facebook messenger apps to link blood recipients to potential donors.

Known as J Blood Match, the programme allows an individual to request blood only after registering as a donor with details such as personal phone number; gender; age; blood group; town, local government, and state of residence.

After registering, the individual can then request blood by answering the prompts of the bot to provide information on the blood type needed, the number of units required, the day the blood is required, location (hospital) where the patient is admitted, and nature of ailment/accident that prompted the blood need.

Once these pieces of information are provided, the bot sends notifications to all nearby registered donors that match the needed blood type within seconds. Available donor(s) then accept the request, and their contact information is shared with the person who made the request.

With the potential donor’s phone number provided, the person who made the request then calls the potential donor, who then meets the beneficiary at the health facility where the transfusion is to be done. The recipient is expected to cover the transportation costs of the donor, but the donor, who must donate the blood for free, can decline the offer.

Once an individual has donated blood, they are required to give feedback on the bot so that they do not receive blood donation requests until they are eligible again (by medical standards, men can donate every three months while women can donate every four months).

Through this process, a blood donor pool is created, and registered individuals (mainly everyday Nigerians) can always receive requests to donate if they are a match for the blood type needed. The service is available in all 36 states of the country and the federal capital, Abuja. Anybody in Nigeria with a smartphone and internet can access the service.

So far, 57 connections have been made through the platforms that now have 418 donors and have received 135 requests since its launch in November 2019.

J Blood Match’s founder, Angela Ochu-Baiye, a former radio talk show host and a Mandela Washington Fellow, said J Blood Match was conceived to bridge the gap between the demand and supply of blood after she observed that Nigeria faced a shortage in its blood bank.

Angela Ochu-Baiye

“Availability of blood in the blood bank when a need arises is often a major challenge we face in Nigeria,” 35-year-old Ochu-Baiye said. “J Blood Match basically ensures that when a need arises, ready and willing donors are notified to approach the hospitals where the recipient is, to make donations.”

She said she wanted to encourage Nigerians to follow the World Health Organization’s campaign of non-remunerated blood donors and be a part of increasing Nigeria’s blood donor pool using technology by taking advantage of “our dependence on smartphones.”

Ochu-Baiye regularly appears on radio shows and visits places of worship and social impact clubs where she talks to listeners and community members about why they should donate blood regularly and how they can donate safely. The nonprofit also employs social media campaigns to encourage potential donors to register on the bot.

The group's “save a life” message to potential donors often leaves donors feeling satisfied after donating.

For example, in December 2020, David Ochoga, an Abuja-based blood donor, registered on J Blood Match and received a request to donate blood at the Garki General Hospital in Abuja for an 11-year-old sickle cell warrior (patient) who had undergone surgery after developing gallstones that clogged his bladder. Ochoga said he felt happy after contributing to the boy's recovery. 

“I was shocked to see a child looking so healthy go through enormous pain, but after donating [blood], I felt fulfilled and [I] encourage others to donate.”

Similarly, early this year, Dorothy Njemanze Foundation, a nonprofit working to reduce gender-based violence and its effects in Nigeria, was handling a complicated health issue that involved a nine-year-old female rape victim that the foundation had rushed to Asokoro General Hospital in Abuja.

Doctors at the hospital had said that the victim needed at least five pints of blood before surgery could be done on her. When the foundation started contemplating how to get donors, someone at the foundation recommended J Blood Match. Once the victim was registered on the platform, responses received were immediate and more than sufficient.

“The turnout was amazing. Not only did we receive a blood donor through the platform almost immediately, JDI helped to raise a total of eight pints of blood for the child. That saved her life and helped her recovery process,” said Positive Favour Okorie, a volunteer at the Dorothy Njemanze Foundation, who handled the case.

However, a major challenge remains myths held by some potential donors and recipients. For example, some potential donors are wary of donating blood for fear of diabolical use.

“If I were to donate blood, it would be to someone I was really close to; at least, I would be sure they’re not taking my destiny or something,” said Joseph Olaoluwa, a Lagos-based resident, “I am the kind of person that needs a living example and very detailed assurance that my blood will be used for the purpose it is collected for.”

To clear such skepticism, Ochu-Baiye often emphasises during her radio appearances that J Blood Match allows blood donors to connect directly with the recipient. She said this process gives donors the opportunity to know the patient they are donating blood for and ensure that the donated blood is not used for nefarious activities.

NOTE: The author, ANGELA ONOZARE UMORU, is Jela's Development Initiatives' Chief Operating Officer.

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